Grassroots officials with the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Wednesday urged their former colleagues to continue working for the people following the defection of several senior members, while analysts warned that leaving the party will weaken the country’s political opposition.
CNRP commune councilors criticized several senior officials and close allies of party President Kem Sokha, including Deputy President Pol Ham, who recently requested “rehabilitation” from Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior in a bid to have their political rights restored.
Kem Sokha was arrested for treason in September 2017 and the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court two months later amid allegations of a plot to overthrow the government. The court ruling also removed the political rights of 118 CNRP elected lawmakers for five years.
The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 parliamentary seats in the country’s 2018 general election.
In December 2018, Hun Sen’s Constitutional Council unanimously approved an amendment to the draft law on political parties, paving the way for the reinstatement of rights to the 118 CNRP officials banned from politics by the Supreme Court’s decision.
The legislation does not provide for the reestablishment of the CNRP, and Hun Sen has said the political rights of the officials will only be reinstated on an individual basis if they had “shown respect for the Supreme Court’s ruling,” and provided they each make an individual request.
Yim Phally, a CNRP commune councilor in Siem Reap province, told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that she disagreed with the senior officials’ decision, even though they have the right to switch political allegiances. She said that requesting political rehabilitation from the government to form a new party will only discourage supporters of the opposition.
“The people can make their own decisions when it comes to those lawmakers,” she said. “I am a grassroots leader, and I will continue to protect the will of the people.”
Another CNRP commune councilor named Loeung Sarun told RFA that people at the grassroots level are disappointed with the senior officials who defected from the party.
“I hope those who are allowed to rehabilitate won’t ignore the people’s need, but typically, those who form new parties stay quiet,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Ey San, however, encouraged CNRP grassroots supporters to leave their party, insisting that it will be unable to participate in upcoming commune and general elections in 2022 and 2023.
He also suggested that recently rehabilitated officials should form new parties that former CNRP members can join to run for office.
None of Cambodia’s smaller, lesser-known opposition parties control a seat in parliament and have failed to draw much support at the ballot box.
Trickle of defections
As of Wednesday, 25 of the 118 CNRP lawmakers have had their political rights restored after seeking rehabilitation from the government, although not all of them have defected to the CPP.
In March 2019, five former officials from the CNRP applied for and received rehabilitation, despite coming under fire from the party and the public, and even receiving accusations that they received money from the government for defying party policy.
Acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile since November 2015 to avoid a string of what he says are politically motivated convictions, has urged the CNRP to refrain from appealing for political rehabilitation, and said those who do will be branded “traitors.”
Political analyst Heng Sreysros told RFA Wednesday that those who request rehabilitation are acknowledging the legitimacy of the CNRP’s dissolution.
“The CNRP’s popularity stems from its merging of the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties,” he said, referring to the former opposition parties run by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.
“Now, the CNRP is splitting into smaller parties, but parties established without the endorsement of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have a slim chance of winning the elections … It now faces the problem of whether to form a new party or not. Can the CNRP survive? There is no scenario in which it is reborn.”
Another analyst named Em Sovanara agreed that parties without the support of the two CNRP leaders will face difficulty convincing voters to back them.
“The voters don’t trust those people because they don’t see them as true democrats,” he said, adding that some of the defectors had agreed to be rehabilitated for financial reasons.
“It is about personal benefits and real estate,” he said. “People are losing confidence [in the officials who left the CNRP].”
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